The #MeToo movement and the Czech Republic

Photo: Prentsa Aldundia, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

How do Czechs feel about #MeToo, the movement against sexual harassment and assault which has brought related crimes into international public discourse in recent years? And how open is Czech society towards victims who decide to come out with their stories? That is what we will explore in this part of Radio Prague International’s series focusing on the issues Czech women face today.

Photo: Prentsa Aldundia,  Flickr,  CC BY-SA 2.0

The #MeToo movement and the hushed up cases of sexual abuse it seeks to uncover came to the international spotlight again earlier this month after former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual assault.

It was perhaps the most closely followed of a series of scandals that brought down the careers of many of the US film industry’s well known faces, including Kevin Spacey, whose character was removed from the popular Netflix show House of Cards, as a result.

Scepticism and dismissal - the #MeToo movement in Czech public discourse

Silvie Lauder,  photo: Jindřich Nosek,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0
In the Czech Republic, unlike in America, there was no opening of the floodgates when it comes to reports of past or ongoing cases of sexual abuse. Confessions were few and not much registered by society. In fact, many believe #MeToo to be an excess of the wider feminist movement.

This position was perhaps best summarized in a television interview by the now deceased former Senate Chair Jaroslav Kubera.

“I do not believe those statistics. I absolutely do not. They are intentionally inflated so that those sorts of ultra-feminists can secure a living off them.

“At the same time I would like to say that I am certainly not downplaying the issue. Women are also being abused in families and not just sexually, but through violence.

“For example, I admit I could not believe for a long time that a doctor or a judge could beat their wife.”

One of those who disagrees with this viewpoint and says the statistics are actually much lower than the real amount of abuse that happens is Silvie Lauder, a journalist at the country’s leading weekly magazine Respekt, who has been following the #MeToo topic for a long time. She recently spoke about the subject with Czech Radio’s Lenka Kabrhelová.

“I think [the reason why there have been few cases of women reporting sexual abuse since the #MeToo movement began] is the general tune in Czech society. This is affected by many influences.

“For example, it is the way through which media informs about this problem. The news about it is often very simplifed, framing it as an issue in showbusiness, an American problem and banal things that happened 30 years ago. That is just not the case.”

Those who tend to comment on the sexual abuse allegations are male politicians and show business personalities who often resort to mockery, the Respekt journalist says.

One example would be Czech sexuologist Radim Uzel, who dismissed the movement during a Charles University conference on #MeToo by saying he should get a life sentence for all the nurses whose bottoms he has slapped.

In a subsequent interview on the news site, he defended his stance towards #MeToo and specifically the Harvey Weinstein case with the following words.

Harvey Weinstein,  photo: David Shankbone,  CC BY 3.0
“What is the cause behind this? Some woman, for example, wanted to become a famous actress and a director touched her thigh. At that time she had no problem with it. Quite the opposite, she was happy the director noticed her and perhaps as a result she even became a famous actress.

“Thirty years on, she is not the star she was any more. She has to keep some focus on her. So she remembers something that happened thirty years ago.”

However, the actual situation may often be more nuanced, especially when it comes to victims being harassed by powerful individuals. In the Harvey Weinstein case at least, the defendant actively tried to dissuade his victims from reporting what had happened, even going as far as to hire a private spy, Ms Lauder points out.

A further issue that she identifies as the reason behind the low resonance of #MeToo and the low amount of discourse on the subject of sexual abuse is that many Czechs are not really aware of what can be classified as abuse.

“It is clear from various surveys that Czechs have a very insufficient idea about what sexual violence actually is and how much it is present.

“For example, a recent Eurobarometer survey showed that Czechs ranked the lowest in terms of seeing the problem as widespread. In other countries sexual abuse is present just as much as here, but at least there people are aware of it…

“Other surveys show that Czechs have no idea about how many rapes take place. There is still this cliche that rape is just being jumped on by some foreigner on the way from the club. The problem is deeply rooted in social norms.”

Given these factors Ms Lauder says she is not surprised that women are afraid to report abuse, especially because reporting such a case can lead to a strong hostile campaign against the victim.

On the other hand, critics state that the same is the case with the accused, who may be innocent, but is immediately put into the spotlight, often without any hard evidence. They fear a precedent, wherein the judicial rule of innocent until proven guilty gets removed.

Another problem which is often cited in reports on the subject, including those in the Czech Republic, is that those who commit rape are often from the victim’s circle of acquaintances, which makes reporting the crime harder still. According to some estimates, only one in ten cases of rape actually get reported.

Is #MeToo having an effect despite the obstacles?

Photo: surdumihail,  CC0
Despite these difficulties, the number rapes being reported did rise slightly last year in the Czech Republic, numbering 525 between January to August. While this could just mean that more rapes took place then on average, Ms Lauder hopes it is a sign of the influence of #MeToo in getting women to open up about sexual violence.

“It means that women, who are predominantly the victims of sexual violence, are less afraid to report cases.

“On one hand because they see that they are not alone. On the other, because, and this is where I believe the Harvey Weinstein case plays a role, they have hope that even those who are powerful and think they are above the law are in fact equal in the eyes of justice.

“I think this gives people the strength to go to the police, which is very positive.”

Based on the interviews she has conducted, Ms Lauder says that before #MeToo many women believed that the problem was in them, but gained confidence after they found out through the public campaign that there were in fact many victims just like them.